This week on The Trip podcast: Radio host Patrick Lagacé brings the world to Quebec and Quebec to the world.
I know Quebec. It’s the Francophone chunk of Canada, prone to frothy linguistic disputes, home of the exquisite lumberjack foods of Joe Beef and Martin Picard, motherland of those hardy souls who live in plywood huts on the streets of New York City every Christmas season, making love in their camper vans, washing up in the bathrooms at Starbucks and slinging trees for cash
Of course, this is to say, I don’t know shit about Quebec. I saw it once across the Ottawa River, but never had set foot in it, and all the things I think I know are filtered through the reports of Anglophone Canada, or worse yet, Vermonters, who have described the province to me as little more than a dyspeptic land of Pepsi-drinking nativists and fur trappers.
This ignorance of mine is an old friend, a familiar problem to those of us who have more frequent flier miles than common sense. But if I have one thing going for me, it’s this undefeated trick of the trade. It’s a two-step thing, actually. First: understand that you know nothing. Second: find a journalist from the place, bring her or him something to drink, and listen.
My great luck in Montreal, at the outset of these next five episodes, is to not just find a journalist, but to find the journalist, the man who has spent years patiently intermediating between Francophone and Anglophone Canada, who has enough cage-rattle to him to have been sketchily surveilled by the Montreal Police Department, who won the Canadian Press Freedom Award for the way he fought back, and who now is the host and voice of Quebec’s biggest drivetime radio news show. He is Patrick Lagacé, and I brought him some beer, and I listened.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Patrick.
Lagacé: We have beer and we have time.
Thornburgh: We have beer and we’ve got time. Plenty of both. Cheers.
Thornburgh: It’s good. It’s good beer. You had sent me to a convenience store to get some Blanche de Chambly, white beer.
Lagacé: And now you’re going to ask why.
Thornburgh: How did you know? These are the kind of unexpected ambush questions I like to put to my guest. Why are we drinking this?
Lagacé: Well, first of all I like it. I like Blanche de Chambly. It is like the grandfather of white ale beers in Quebec on the craft beer scene. They were one of the first Unibroue. So I’d say 25 years ago they were starting.
Thornburgh: This is like the Sierra Nevada of Quebec…
Lagacé: Something like that.
Thornburgh: … of craft beer.
Lagacé: And since then, the scene for craft beer has exploded. And it used to be very, very small in terms of shelves in grocery stores. And now it’s huge. So there you go. This one I knew you would find it easily.
Thornburgh: Thank you. Yeah. I do have to say, the convenient store that I went into had a store just filled with chips and smokes and stuff. And then it had a beer cooler. And then there was a door and a whole other room behind the beer cooler. It was like Stranger Things. It was like, there was like a cavern.
Lagacé: Then downstairs you would have found the upside down world or something like that of beer.
Thornburgh: It would have been filled with Russian colonels and little green men. Yeah, that was astonishing, the amount of beer. I’ve been two hours in Canada, it’s exactly what I want—a gigantic walk-in cooler to confirm everything that I thought I knew about this country.
Live radio is like being on Concerta or Ritalin all the time. You’re so focused.
Thornburgh: Tell me about the new show that you’ve got. Your new radio gig that started this fall, right?
Thornburgh: So tell me about it. It’s Quebec maintenant?
Lagacé: Le Québec maintenant. So it’s broadcast in Montreal. But also in a couple of regions in Quebec. And what we’re doing, it’s a drive-home show. And for a couple of years people at the radio station said, where I was doing commentary, “If ever you want to entertain the idea to host a show, let us know. We’d be interested.” And then at one point I said, “Yeah, let’s talk about it.”
Thornburgh: What changed for you? I mean, it’s a very different way of doing journalism.
Lagacé: For the first time I have the feeling that I work.
Thornburgh: It’s not a feeling any journalists really wants to lean into.
Lagacé: No. And I’m not saying it in a negative way. Because when I was doing only the column in newspapers, I mean, I was choosing my timetable. Which is, you choose to work all the time. But if I wanted an afternoon just staring at the screen or doing phone calls, I was free to do that. Now, from noon to 6:00, I’m in an office doing stuff. I’ve never done that before…
Thornburgh: How does it feel?
Lagacé: … in the last 15 years. Weird. And nobody is going to cry over me. Because everybody has a job and everybody has to report. Or almost everyone.
Thornburgh: Right. And I should say this job as the host of the number one drive time show in Quebec, it’s a very high profile. I mean, you’ve been in the public eye for a long time. But this feels like kind of another level.
Lagacé: But I feel that everything that I’ve learned in the past 20 years, all of my skills, my interests, are put to use in that show. In a way that the column doesn’t do. In a way that the TV show doesn’t do. So it’s very challenging. It’s very fun. And my God, live radio. The fact, being live, I’d done that for commentary. But never hosting the thing. It’s a fascinating feeling. It’s like being on Concerta or Ritalin all the time. You’re so focused.
Thornburgh: That is not a party experience I’ve had. But you’re just right. Heightened, you got some adrenaline going.
Lagacé: Your focus is 100%. It’s fascinating.
Thornburgh: I wanted to ask about this. I mean, do you think most Quebecois know you because … Just not only the people who watch journalism, or who are kind of fancy news readers, know you because of the tracking scandal. The most famous thing about you as a journalist, I think, was that you were suddenly in the middle of this huge court case and commission. So can you give me just the quick background on what that was?
Lagacé: Very simple. In July 2016, police officers were arrested on suspicion of having done wrongdoings in the course of their work. And when I saw that, I was taken aback. Because one of the persons who was arrested was a guy I spoke with regularly.
Thornburgh: He was a source.
Lagacé: He was a source. But not a source in the sense of, “Here’s a secret.” He would educate me on police matters. And it was not the first time that a source of mine had been in the sights of internal affairs. So when I found that out, I was very, very suspicious.
Thornburgh: It felt like a pattern.
Lagacé: There you go.
Thornburgh: Like your sources were compromised.
Lagacé: Yeah. And I knew that in this police department, the Montreal police department, they had been paranoid about who was talking to the media. Not only to me. I knew of other reporters who had very, very weird feelings. So these guys are arrested July 2016. And almost three years ago to this day, we’re taping mid-October. And one of my colleagues at La Presse had been telling me two or three times, “Your name keeps popping up from my sources regarding to the arrest of these police officers.” And I said, “I have done nothing wrong, so I can’t help you.” And then one day my editor-in-chief and our in-house counsel called me and said, “We’ve had access to the subpoenas that were submitted to judges to do wiretapping, to do surveillance on these police officers. And they asked specifically for permission to track your phone to get the metadata from your phone.” So they did not access my conversations, but for a couple of months they were able to see who was writing to me, who was phoning me. They could have activated a chip and they said that they didn’t do it.
A chip in my phone to kind of track me in real life. They mounted an operation with double agents. Because they thought I was going to meet with the source and they would have been around and tried to snoop on us. And the fascinating thing and the outrageous thing was that, what they wrote in their subpoenas … And I don’t know if it works for the same in your country. But you know you write a document as a police officer, you submit it to a judge, and he grants you permission to wiretap.
Thornburgh: An affidavit.
Lagacé: Affidavit. There you go.
Thornburgh: To get that warrant. Right.
That’s is a very Quebec crime—texting pictures of foie gras.
Lagacé: Before the subpoena, you have to write the affidavit. Okay. What they wrote in the affidavit was bullshit. It was lies. It was not true. They would make up stuff. They would say, “Lagacé has sent a text to one of his colleagues. And it’s very weird because he hasn’t spoken to this colleague in three weeks. They haven’t exchanged messages. And this colleague, two weeks after broke a story. And we think that this police officer told Lagacé, who told this reporter who broke the story.” I mean, look, I still had the text messages. And in one case, when they presented the judge with their so-called evidence, it was made to look very sinister. I was in a Christmas party, and this message that they could not access … They could only tell the judge, “He’s written this guy on that date at that time. So it must mean that they’re up to something.” I sent him a picture of bread and foie gras. And said, “Look at what you’re missing.”
Thornburgh: That’s is a very fucking Quebec crime—texting pictures of foie gras. The guys at Joe Beef would be proud.
Lagacé: But at another point, just to give you an example of how twisted they were, how incredibly dishonest that they were with the judges, they said, “The source, the police officer gives stuff to Lagacé. And Lagacé gives them to Le Journal de Montréal.” Le Journal de Montréal, it’s like saying this source gave stuff to The New York Times reporter, who then passes it along to the New York Post. And the judge fell for that.